In the most affluent parts of the Western world, a historic transference of power has taken place that is greater than anything achieved by the trade-union movement, the women’s movement or the civil-rights movement — and it hasn’t even been extended the courtesy of being called a movement. Fathers, who enjoyed absolute authority within the household for several millennia, now find themselves at the beck and call of their wives and children.
Stop here. It’s a short essay, and you can’t fault the author for failing to undertake a historical ethnography of the development of the family in what we may broadly call “Western” society, but the term “absolute authority within the household for several millennia” is every bit as empirically accurate as declaring that the Earth “enjoyed an absolutely central role in the universe for several millennia.” It takes no account of how families actually functioned in agrarian economic conditions, or of how the industrial revolution changed those conditions, or of how mothers and fathers have negotiated (and imposed) roles and responsibilities for millennia. One man’s funny throwaway line is another’s lazy nonsense.
We’re also, of course, going to set aside all of the instances in which fathers abandoned the title of benevolent authoritarian, in favor either of actual abandonment, or of explicit, tyrannical, domestic violence, executed upon the bodies of the woman and children they were notionally protecting.
Indeed, most of my male friends are not fathers in any traditional sense at all; they occupy roughly the same status in their households as the help. They don’t guide their children through the moral quandaries of life — they guide them to their extracurricular activities from behind the wheel of a Dodge minivan.
Isn’t this also what moms do? And doesn’t that mean that Young views women, and their appropriate position within in the home, as falling under the term “the help?” Is it genuinely useful, at this point in American political and social life, to publish an essay written explicitly from the point of view that family relations ought to be constituted on authoritarian terms, with the man acting as (albeit distant) tyrant over the woman and the children?
“Home Game,” Mr. Lewis’s account of becoming a father to his three children, begins promisingly. “At some point in the last few decades, the American male sat down at the negotiating table with the American female and — let us be frank — got fleeced,” he writes.
The poor sucker agreed to take on responsibility for all sorts of menial tasks — tasks that his own father was barely aware of — and received nothing in return.
He did get the opportunity to spend time with his children, a reward which can surely be overstated, but that many fathers consider quite valuable. It’s apparent that Young profoundly dislikes his own children, and would rather not be forced to spend any time around them (see the vasectomy comments below). I know it sounds crazy, but no small percentage of fathers enjoy, and derive great satisfaction from, the daily demands of active parenthood. It turns out that many of the moral quandaries of life can, in fact, benefit from conversations conduction from behind the wheel of a Dodge minivan.
If he was hoping for some gratitude, he was mistaken. According to Mr. Lewis: “Women may smile at a man pushing a baby stroller, but it is with the gentle condescension of a high officer of an army toward a village that surrendered without a fight.”
American men now find themselves in the same position as Gorbachev after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Having done the decent thing, and ceded power without bloodshed, they are now looked on with good-humored disdain. (Full disclosure: I am a father of four living in London and can confirm that the situation for British men is no better.)
This is, indeed, good stuff; men have voluntarily given up their position as domestic tyrant, and with hardly any work at all! The participants in successive waves of feminist thinking surely view their victory as both complete, and bloodless; men will now grudgingly drive the children to soccer practice! Break out the champagne and bon bons!
This is good stuff — the American male is a pitiful creature — and it is followed by plenty of examples from Mr. Lewis’s own life. No sooner has his first daughter arrived than he is transformed into a surrendered husband, forced to take her to a succession of “Mommy and me” classes. At one point, while living in Paris, he ends up in a swimming pool with “a dozen scantily clad Frenchmen,” all accompanied by their newborn babies. It isn’t long before he has been thoroughly brainwashed by the politically correct mumbo-jumbo that passes for wisdom in “parenting courses.” “I understood that my job was no longer to force the party line upon Quinn,” he writes. “My job was to validate her feelings.” His wife, who used to look up to him as a glamorous writer, begins to view him as an “unreliable employee.”
“Home Game” ends with Mr. Lewis’s description of getting a vasectomy — at the request of his wife, naturally. Having submitted to metaphorical castration, he decides to go the whole nine yards. It reminded me of the final scene in “The Stepford Wives” in which we see the lobotomized Katharine Ross wandering down a supermarket aisle. Mr. Lewis laughs off the indignities of the surgical procedure, as he does all the other humiliations that his wife and children inflict on him, but beneath all the jokes there’s a sense of loss, a nostalgia for the time when fathers weren’t objects of ridicule. This is a profound and far-reaching change in American family life, and it deserves more serious consideration from one of America’s finest writers.
Because having determined that the American man has been utterly subjugated by wife and children, the appropriate response is surely the production of additional children! One begins to wonder about the good sense of allocating authoritarian power to such irrational, status-paranoid, emotionally driven creatures in the first place.